UBC Experimenters To Kill Turtles

Research into helping endangered species is a good thing. But what to do with this small group of turtles that have been studied for years in experiments that are now ending? And, by the way, do we really need experiments like these to determine that the solution to losing endangered species to “bycatch” in fishing nets is, quite simply, fewer of the huge nets that are scouring our oceans clean of fish? Read about another case of unintended consequences when it comes to our treatment of animals, even those we are trying to help. – Global Animal

Kim Pemberton, Vancouver Sun

VANCOUVER – Endangered green sea turtles that have been part of a University of B.C. research project for more than 10 years will be killed sometime this spring.

Bill Milsom, head of UBC’s zoology department, said seven turtles will be killed in order to complete a study into turtle diving depths. The turtles are at least 10 years old and can live to be 30.

The study was designed to measure the impacts of climate change on the animals and to help countries develop policies around fishing.

More than 85,000 green sea turtles died as “bycatch in the fishing industry” between 1990 and 2008, Milsom said. By studying diving depths, researchers could recommend how deep fish nets should be placed to avoid catching the turtles.

Asked why kill an endangered species, Milsom said “they were brought in for these experiments [at UBC] and as part of those experiments, it requires harvesting the tissues.”

As the research progressed, he said, the studies became more invasive. Initially, tiny pacemaker-like devices were implanted under the turtles’ skin to measure impacts of climate change.

“The final experiments require major surgery,” Milsom said. They are necessary to “help us understand why these animals have such high mortality when caught in trawl nets in warming oceans.”

At the end of the surgery and measurements, the anesthesia will be increased until the turtles die, Milsom said.

A spokesman for an animal rights group said it makes no sense to kill an endangered species and questions why the turtles can’t be spared to “live out their final days in peace.”

“At a time when there are all sorts of efforts to save these animals, and they’re being hit by oil spills and beach development, UBC is killing them,” said Brian Vincent, from the group called Stop UBC Animal Research.

Vincent said his group was told first about UBC’s plan to have the turtles killed by someone at the university, who believed the decision was prompted by the pending demolition of the building where they are housed in a tank measuring 10 metres by three metres.

Milsom confirmed the building is coming down and that David Jones, the researcher heading the turtle study, had recently died but “it would be a tragedy and waste if [the experiments] were not seen through to completion.”

However, he said neither was a factor in the decision to kill the animals.

Milsom said it would be impossible to free the 16 turtles, which were born in captivity and brought here from the Cayman Islands Turtle Farm in 1997 and 2003. (Two died, seven were retired to educational facilities and the seven remaining will be killed after the final experiments.)

The permit from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) that permitted UBC to import the turtles specifically stated they can’t be released into the wild, he said.

“A big part of that is once they are raised in captivity they’ll pick up bugs, parasites, bacteria. You don’t want them infecting other animals,” Milsom said.

Even relocating them to a facility like the Vancouver Aquarium would require a lot of paperwork, he added.

Vancouver Aquarium spokeswoman Roxanne St-Pierre said the aquarium isn’t in a position to take the animals, even if they were on offer.

The sea turtles “require a wide living space and we don’t have the habitats to welcome them.”

Milsom said no biologists enjoy having to kill animals. “As biologists our passion is animals,” said Milsom. “Our lives are understanding biology and nature. The work we do is ultimately to the end of conservation and many experiments require some animals to be sacrificed. It’s only done when absolutely necessary.”

He said in order for the scientific community to obtain the most information possible from the seven turtles, a call was put out to the international scientific community and four colleagues from Denmark, California and Hawaii will be coming to take tissue samples for use in their own research projects.

“We want to ensure that these animals are used to the greatest advantage possible,” he said.